Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The 25th film in the all-encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings yet another superhero into the fold and with him, a new subgenre to the franchise. Like Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan from last year, this latest entry incorporates martial arts and the fantastical storytelling of wuxia fiction into a mostly satisfying action feature. It’s the MCU’s most inspired standalone entry since Black Panther but includes the most laborious exposition of any of their films since Doctor Strange (and that’s including the one where dozens of characters had to go on a time-travel heist). Despite the heavy amounts of backstory, the movie is as light on its feet as it can be and breezes by with well-placed humor and winsome performances.

When we meet San Francisco-based twenty-something Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), he’s in a bit of a rut. Valeting cars by day under the alias “Shaun” and hitting up karaoke bars by night with his rambunctious cohort Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi’s millennial malaise dissipates suddenly when a bus confrontation forces him to tap into dormant hand-to-hand skills. The goons sent to fight him turn out to be a part of the dangerous Ten Rings organization, headed up by none other than Shang-Chi’s super-powered father Wenwu (Tony Leung). His plan to recover his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen) from the cryptic land of Ta Lo seems fortuitous at first, until Shang-Chi learns of the violent measures Wenwu and his Ten Rings intend to take in the process.

My main charge against Marvel’s previous big-screen offering Black Widow was that it felt anonymous, as if you could plug any MCU character into the film as its protagonist and not much would be affected. Certainly, the same criticism cannot be applied to Shang-Chi. The most obvious way that the film distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack is with its dazzling fight choreography, particularly in two, Jackie Chan-influenced action setpieces from the first act. The first, in which “Shaun” turns into Shang-Chi before Katy’s eyes while he takes out several oversized foes, somehow gives the jaw-dropping bus brawl from Nobody a run for its money. The second is an extended sequence atop bamboo scaffolding high above Macau, which merges practical effects and CG to brilliant effect.

Reliance on backstory is often an Achilles’ Heel for those Marvel movies which serve as on-screen introductions to a new superhero and sadly, Shang-Chi‘s convoluted setup is its greatest weakness. The film opens with a gorgeous flashback, featuring a sort of “combat ballet” with echoes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but by the third act, the cutaways to the past become tedious. Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton chooses to scatter his exposition throughout the narrative but does so with little regard for the overall flow of the film. The climactic battle is also overstuffed with magical creatures introduced late in the game, who ultimately take up too much screen time and distract from the (admittedly foolish) plan that the villain aims to carry out.

Despite the awkwardly placed bits of storytelling, the film remains engaging throughout mainly due to the liveliness of the performances. As the titular warrior, newcomer Simu Liu brings an earnest charm to his role that plays nicely against his fierce fighting abilities. Awkwafina has been on the rise over the past few years and she turns in another effortlessly funny sidekick performance while also not being relegated to a love interest for the lead. The menacing work from the great Wong Kar-wai collaborator Tony Leung will elate those still bitter about the Mandarin fake-out from 2013’s Iron Man 3. With some tighter direction, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings could have been one of the better chapters in the MCU canon but even as is, it’s another reliable entertainment from the most prolific assembly line in the business.

Score – 3/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Debuting on Amazon Prime is Cinderella, a romantic comedy starring Camila Cabello and Idina Menzel reworking the classic fairy tale into a modern-day musical.
Streaming on Netflix is Worth, a legal drama starring Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci about a headstrong Washington D.C. attorney who battles against bureaucracy and politics to help victims of 9/11.
Available to rent on demand is The Gateway, a crime thriller starring Frank Grillo and Olivia Munn about a social worker who intervenes when an inmate returns to his family and tries to lure them into a life of crime.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Night House

A year and a half after debuting at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, a hefty Searchlight Pictures acquisition finally sees the light of day, which is to say the dark of the movie theater. The atmospheric and genuinely chilling The Night House is half tantalizing mystery and half psychological horror but wholly gripping all the way through. Like Netflix’s The Woman in the Window from earlier this year, the film depicts a female protagonist who isolates herself from the rest of the world to pull a nagging thread that threatens to unravel everything around her. Just as Amy Adams knocked it out of the park in that unfairly maligned Netflix offering, Rebecca Hall turns in a fiercely committed performance that puts us firmly within her fractured psyche.

Hall plays Beth, a high school teacher failing to make sense of the abrupt suicide of Owen (Evan Jonigkeit), her loving husband of almost 15 years. Retreating to the ornate lake house that he built for them before their marriage, she goes through mementos like wedding videos and love notes before happening upon the blueprints for their luxurious home. Strange inscriptions and evidence of hidden rooms prompt Beth to dig deeper, which in turn causes sleeplessness and disturbing visions that only get her more involved in the dark secrets that are waiting to be uncovered. Beth’s new obsession disturbs friends like Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and neighbors like Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) alike, begging the question if all of these supernatural connections are simply a matter of Beth’s grief-stricken imagination.

Directed by David Bruckner, veteran of horror anthology showcases like V/H/S and Southbound, The Night House doesn’t have the sturdiest script around but makes up for the more ungainly plot elements with some well earned scares. Yes, there are jump scares and yes, some of them are cheaper than others, but the movie also provides more drawn-out sequences that give us time to study the frame and investigate the shadows that may or may not be there. While the film has slightly different goals and intentions than last year’s The Invisible Man, both movies share a proclivity for negative space in the frame, suggesting the evil that may lurk there and allowing our imagination to fill the chasm. The Night House makes even more evocative use of moving shadows and shifting rooms, to profoundly creepy and unsettling effect.

Bruckner also thematically and visually quotes several films of a master filmmaker not traditionally associated with the horror genre: Ingmar Bergman. His narrative invokes Jungian duality and doppelgängers in ways that brought me right back to Bergman’s endlessly debated masterwork Persona. A shot late in the film between Beth and a deathly figure is composed and choreographed so similarly to the iconic chess scene in The Seventh Seal that I find it impossible for it not to be intentional. More obliquely, the crimson-tinged third act of The Night House recalls the inescapable reddish rue of Cries and Whispers and all of its stirring underpinnings. It’s heartening to see directors implement concepts of classic cinema so seamlessly into a modern ghost tale.

Since appearing in The Prestige 15 years ago, Rebecca Hall has become one of the most captivating actresses around and here, she proves that she can hold a movie together with little help from other performers. Her Beth isn’t always likable in the traditional sense — she’s not afraid to confront people and make them uncomfortable if it seems warranted –but her struggle to put these twisted puzzle pieces together is always engaging. Hall wears the fears and insecurities of her characters with such boldness that it’s often inspiring; if her characters can overcome their baggage and damage, perhaps we can too. When Bruckner introduced the film at Sundance, he said it’s “about which idea you find scarier: that ghosts exist, or that they don’t.” The Night House has the capacity to haunt properly, no matter which option you choose.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Candyman, a supernatural slasher sequel starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Teyonah Parris about a Chicago-based group of young professionals who awaken the titular bogeyman once again.
Streaming on Hulu is Vacation Friends, a comedy starring John Cena and Lil Rel Howery about a couple whose wedding is crashed by a pair of casual friends from a vacation.
Available on Netflix is He’s All That, a gender-swapped remake starring Addison Rae and Tanner Buchanan about a high school girl who accepts a challenge to turn the school’s least popular boy into prom king.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


For a band that’s toiled in obscurity for decades, Sparks is finally finding themselves squarely in the spotlight this year. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival back in January, The Sparks Brothers is a documentary/love letter from director/fanboy Edgar Wright covering 50 years of the duo’s idiosyncratic work in the music industry. Now comes Annette, an undeniably eccentric but frustratingly hollow musical that Sparks members Ron and Russell Mael conceived with French writer/director Leos Carax. Its oddball energy and conviction to its own brand of strangeness would suggest the singular vision of a stubborn auteur but apparently, this trio of outsiders found a common ground upon which to craft this audacious but arduous melodrama.

Meet Henry McHenry (Adam Driver). He’s a stand-up comedian whose persona hinges on the premise that he’s the last person who should be performing on-stage. He appears to crowds disheveled in a bathrobe, murmuring petty observations with his back to the audience, generating comedy from the mere fact that no stand-up in their right mind would go forward with this act. Somehow, McHenry has captured the affections of luminous opera singer Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), whose international popularity in the theater scene means that the couple is plagued by paparazzi nearly everywhere they go. With the world watching, Henry and Ann welcome their daughter Annette in the world but struggle to raise her together as Henry’s career stalls out while Ann travels the world to perform for sold-out crowds.

Beginning in a recording studio where the Mael brothers (playing themselves) address the audience and launch into the cheeky, walk-and-sing opener “So May We Start”, Annette benefits from an infectious and lively energy from the first frame. Sadly, it’s mostly a tease, promising a fun and rambunctious challenge to the conventional musical when what follows is a moody half-opera with saturnine pacing. It’s a film whose narrative shifts quite wildly around the halfway mark, following a tragic turn that has McHenry and an accompanist played by Simon Helberg renegotiating their relationships to Ann and Annette. Both halves are held together by themes from the allure of fame to the bounds of artistry, exploring the efficacy of entertainment in profoundly weird and sometimes unsettling terms.

Driver is quite excellent throughout, disarming our inclinations to write off his narcissistic protagonist by committing fully to his beguiling but compelling anti-comedy schtick. It’s hard to know where “McHenry” stops and McHenry begins, creating a line that Driver has some serious fun dancing around. He doesn’t have the strongest singing voice out there but as we found out from La La Land a few years ago, you don’t need world-class pipes to weave together some movie magic. His conviction to such a deranged but magnetic central character reminded me of his work in the similarly cockeyed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, doggedly holding the center in both of the deeply out-there tales.

The Sparks-crafted music that serves as the backbone for this project bares the off-kilter and droll watermark the duo has perfected over the decades but the coinciding lyrics are often redundant and deprived of subtlety. When Driver and Cotillard croon the lines “we love each other so much, it’s so hard to explain” over and over at one another, I actually laughed at how unsophisticated the underlying sentiment was and I don’t think that’s what Carax and crew intended. Then again, there are quite a few fourth-wall breaks, including a number where Helberg’s character spills his heart out to the audience while apologizing for having to get back to conducting an orchestra, so maybe I’m just not fully in on the joke. Those who want to take a dive in the deep end may give Annette the attention it demands but your best bet may be to stay out of the pool altogether.

Score – 2.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Reminiscence, a sci-fi thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson about a scientist who discovers a way to relive his past and uses the technology to search for his long lost love.
Playing only in theaters is The Night House, a psychological horror film starring Rebecca Hall and Sarah Goldberg about a widow who begins to uncover her recently deceased husband’s disturbing secrets.
Also playing in theaters and streaming on Paramount+ is PAW Patrol: The Movie, an adaptation of the popular animated children’s series starring Iain Armitage and Marsai Martin which finds the band of pups up against the evil mayor of their city.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


The opening film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which brought audiences to their feet when it screened on-site and virtually back in January, is now here to warm hearts the world over. Apple acquired distribution rights to CODA for $25 million, a record-setting price tag for a Sundance selection, two days after it premiered and I’m happy to report that the movie is worth every penny spent. Apple TV+ is a streaming service that has gotten off to a slow start since programming began in November of 2019 but crowd-pleasing content like Ted Lasso, the ongoing Schmigadoon! and this new entry could be a formidable way forward. Theoretically, the demand for feel-good streaming entertainment should be higher than ever and this indie gem has all the hallmarks of an endearing and enduring classic.

The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, a demure high school senior whose designation as a Child Of Deaf Adults gives the film its acronymous title. As the only hearing member of her Massachusetts-based family, she plays a crucial role in aiding the fishing business her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) started with little more than a schooner to his name. Ruby splits her time at school going out to sea with her father and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), singing along to oldies while helping them bring in their fishing nets. Her burgeoning passion for music is recognized and emboldened by Ruby’s choir teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), whose proposition that Ruby consider music school puts her personal dreams at odds with her desire to keep her tight-knit, working-class family together.

Adapting from the French dramedy La Famille Bélier, writer/director Sian Heder has crafted an irresistible and utterly charming coming-of-age story packed with both achingly authentic and warmly funny moments. It’s a fair criticism to point out that the shape of CODA‘s narrative is not novel to the genre but for every story beat that may seem familiar, Heder adds a character detail or extra moment that gives her film its own unique signature. She isn’t interested in making saints out of her deaf characters; Leo playfully exchanges vulgarities with her sister in American Sign Language (ASL), while Ruby has to translate for her not-so-discreetly amorous parents during an uncomfortable doctor’s visit. These are full-featured and soulful characters who inspire empathy and affection from minute one.

Much of that is credit to the immensely talented cast, headed up by the phenomenal 19-year-old British actress Emilia Jones. As Ruby, she is CODA‘s magnetic center, carrying the weight of her family’s struggles and expectations of her while trying to find herself and realize her dreams in the process. It’s a breakout performance, affecting and pure with heaps of compassion baked in. Along with Marlee Matlin in addition to Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, the film features an exceptional trio of deaf actors who effortlessly flesh out characters usually relegated to the periphery with fantastically lived-in performances. Kudos to casting director Deborah Aquila for not just finding actors that “fit the bill” but matching each performer flawlessly with their respective roles.

Since a significant portion of the film is in ASL, CODA is to be the first film with “open” subtitles being displayed throughout for every member of the audience during its theatrical run. Whatever taboo may exist around American audiences being shown subtitles during an English-language film may be dissolving thanks to other movies like A Quiet Place and its recent sequel, which also feature extensive use of ASL. Personally, I prefer to watch as many films with subtitles as possible (regardless of language) and I hope the experience of viewing one in theaters will open audiences up to the possibilities it provides. As Parasite director Bong Joon Ho pointed in one of his Oscar speeches from last year, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I’m happy to cite CODA as a prime example.

Score – 4.5/5

More new movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Free Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, follows a non-player character in an open world video game who becomes self-aware and decides to save the day.
Don’t Breathe 2, a horror thriller starring Stephen Lang and Madelyn Grace, fast forwards 11 years after the home invasion of the original film to find The Blind Man fending off more bandits.
Respect, a music biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, details Aretha Franklin’s rise from choir singer in Detroit to the Queen of Soul while depicting her personal struggles along the way.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #56 – The Green Knight

I’m joined by my friend Nick as we get medieval on your heinies to discuss The Green Knight, the new Arthurian tale from A24 and writer/director David Lowery. Then we share other things we’ve been listening to and watching, including the Radiolab project The Vanishing of Harry Pace and the Apple TV+ comedy musical series Schmigadoon! (first four episodes currently streaming, final two in the coming weeks). Nick also plugs his excellent short story series podcast Written and Read By. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

The Green Knight

Texas-based filmmaker David Lowery has always had Camelot on his mind. In a recent press release, he shared a photo of himself at 8-years-old donning a tunic and shiny helmet, crediting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade for his obsession around Grail mythology and Arthurian lore. Now 40, Lowery has realized his childhood dream with The Green Knight, a beautiful and bold medieval fantasy that doesn’t play by any of the “rules” laid out by previous Round Table movies. While the film follows the narrative laid out by the 14th-century poem, the ethereal epic explores the text’s themes of courage and loyalty in an evocative and challenging manner that immerses all of one’s senses in the theatrical experience.

The focus of the tale is Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), who joins his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) in the royal court for a Christmas feast among a group of legendary knights. Gawain laments that he has no notable stories to share with his esteemed brethren when a mystical treelike creature calling himself the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) proffers a festive challenge to the group. He offers his axe to whomever can land a clean strike against him but warns that an equal blow will be returned in a year’s time, prompting Gawain to heedlessly behead the Green Knight. When the otherworldly being retrieves his head and rides away laughing, Gawain must decide whether to accept his fate by traveling to the Knight’s home of Green Chapel the year following or to cower in Camelot until Christmas comes again.

Leading up an exemplary ensemble cast, Patel has never been better as a temerarious but trustworthy young journeyman trying to find his place in the world between myth and mediocrity. A24 regulars like Barry Keoghan and Kate Dickie (the latter of whom also appeared with Ineson in the studio’s 2016 breakout The Witch) make the most of their screen time as a creepy scavenger and Queen Guinevere, respectively. The always welcome Joel Edgerton also turns up as a chuffed lord eager to help Gawain on his quest, with some caveats. Alicia Vikander is also terrific in a dual role whose characters bleed into one another in a seductive and mysterious way. In the third act, one of her characters gives a colorful monologue about the unstoppable forces of nature that made me temporarily scared of the color green.

Many modern medieval movies (2018’s Robin Hood springs to mind) tend to focus on the battle and swordplay associated with these tales, bringing in loads of computer-generated effects and legions of stunt people to give things an “epic” feel. Though he does use some CGI for the Green Knight creature and a friendly fox that aids and, on one occasion, scolds Gawain, Lowery often utilizes the immaculate production design and practical effects to convey his pensive and impressionistic tale. This isn’t an action movie; the violence in the film takes place quickly but the consequences reverberate throughout. There are more than a handful of Arthurian allusions in the picture and those not familiar with the material may be frustrated at the movie’s lack of explanation and exposition. One would do well to brush up on the source material before going into the theater.

In addition to writing and directing The Green Knight, Lowery serves as the editor and applies the unique rhythm and texture he established in 2017’s A Ghost Story. He’s often unpredictable in his movement, using startling jump cuts to pass over long stretches of time but holding and lingering on shots that we may expect other directors to cut away from sooner. With cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, he composes shots that are haunting and suggest depths of emotion that may not be felt otherwise from the story. Lowery revealed in an interview last week that in the long lead-up to the film’s release, he had doubts about continuing to make future films in the face of an increasingly uncertain world but decided to press on with projects he deemed worthwhile. If The Green Knight is evidence of what else he has in store, he has chosen wisely.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max is The Suicide Squad, a DCEU superhero sequel starring Margot Robbie and Idris Elba about super-powered penitentiary inmates who are sent to a South American island to destroy a Nazi-era laboratory.
Available to rent on demand is John and the Hole, a psychological thriller starring Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle about a disturbed young boy who holds his family captive in a hole in the ground.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Val, a documentary that depicts the life and career of actor Val Kilmer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup